9NEWS spoke to Bill Trampe, the rancher who owned the cattle, on Tuesday evening.
"The hardest part for us is the lack of being able to take care of our cattle," Trampe, a third-generation rancher, said. "That really hurts. We're still shaken over it. There is an emotional part of it that continues to drag on us. You get to the point you don't know if you want to continue in the business after something like this."
Trampe has been a rancher in Gunnison for 40 years. He told 9NEWS the cows would've lived on the ranch for eight to 10 years, producing calves.
"We lost part of our mother cow factory in the mountains this fall," he said.
He says the dead cows represent $30,000 worth of cattle.
A hiker who's taken this trail for the last 10 years sent 9NEWS pictures of the cows while they were still alive.
The hiker, who asked to remain anonymous, sent 9NEWS a number of photos Tuesday morning, saying he snapped those while hiking with a friend in early November.
The man also said he emailed the Forest Service back then telling them the cows may not belong there. He has not provided 9NEWS the copy of the email he says he sent.
Bill Kight, spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, told 9NEWS the agency did not receive any notice of the animals being stranded until their bodies were found by Air Force Academy cadets snowshoeing in late March.
"Had we received the email or had been notified in person or by phone that there were cows in the Conundrum Springs area, we certainly would've contacted the person holding the grazing permit on the Gunnison National Forest and they would've gladly removed them," Kight said. "Because they've incurred a lot of expense since then, flying over the area in an airplane trying to find the cows, we would've gladly come and herded the cows where they could've been loaded up and removed."
Kight believes the cows came over the Elk Mountains and West Elk, which would've been at least 12 to 15 miles from where they started out in the Gunnison National Forest.
"In my 35 years of government service I've never known a situation like this for the cows to come over the entire mountain range down into a different forest. This is a new one for me," Kight said.
Kight says Trampe reported 29 cows missing - all but 19 are accounted for and six were found inside the cabin.
"It's a very heavily used area, the trails that go to Conundrum Hot Springs. We're just asking the public to help us out and stay away from there for the next month," Kight said. "It's not going to be a good place to go hiking and we certainly want to keep the public safe is foremost in our minds."
Trampe says he and his employees spent days and thousands of dollars looking for the cattle.
He told 9NEWS he first noticed the cows missing the first part of October, when he gathered livestock from the land. He then spent months searching for them on horseback and three different times using an airplane looking for tracks.
Trampe's girlfriend also hiked a part of the trail, but didn't see anything.
"We were thinking if they were there, someone would've said something to the Forest Service," he said.
Trampe says he talked to every hunter, and every agency that looks at the land. He searched their permitted country, as well as adjoining areas.
"We would've gone to any length to find the cattle. And we thought we went to every length to find them," he said. "We ran out of time to get into the hills. We got snowed out."
Gary Beals was hiking with the anonymous photographer. He says they were in the area Nov. 11 and 12 and saw the cows then.
"They were hiding out in the shelter. There's some pretty good snow up there," Beals told 9NEWS. "We were on snow shoes coming up. We actually followed the cow tracks up towards the hot springs because it got a little deep in the open area and we were a little tired. They actually helped us get up the hill."
Beals says it was already cold, with the temperatures dipping below zero with a lot of snow.
"We were very surprised. We've never seen any animals up there before," he said. "It's a long ways up. They must have gone in a day or two before us."
Beals says he found it hard to believe that between November and March no one else saw and reported the animals.
"I would expect somebody saw them, especially the weather they way it was so warm," Beals said. "I guarantee people were up at Conundrum. We made an effort to contact the Forest Service. I thought somebody else would've reported it as well."
The U.S. Forest Service says many people may not have come through the area in the winter because of the snowpack and the avalanche danger.
Lee Ann Loupe, the spokesperson for the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests, told 9NEWS the cows were supposed to be grazing on their allotment on the Gunnison National Forest land.
Loupe says Trampe was rounding up his cattle in October or November when he noticed he was 29 head short.
Typically, ranchers get permission for a certain number of cattle to graze on Forest Service land. They feed from late spring to early summer to the fall, when the ranchers move them.
Loupe says Trampe spent a few months, until January, riding the area, using aircraft to look for the animals, but had to quit in January because the snow got too deep.
"The owner feels badly for the loss, and financially put a lot of time and energy in finding them earlier," Loupe said. "He's been cooperating and working with the Forest Service to address the situation. The biggest concern everyone has right now is addressing the problem, before the snow melts, bear and other predators finding a food source."
The U.S. Forest service has not yet decided what to do with the cabin where some of the dead cows were found, but the cow carcasses will be chopped up and taken to the woods.
(KUSA-TV © 2012 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)